NUT Tbilisi 2019

NUT Tbilisi Forum 2019 was funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the initiative of the Swedish Embassy in Tbilisi and in collaboration with the Faculty of Technology at Caucasian University and the Project ArtBeat.

Tbilisi, an ancient city at a crossroad, a cultural melting pot, victim of numerous invasions and conquest but with a strong identity and amazing development since the independence 20 years ago. The “soul” of the city was discussed as a starting point of the seminar; not only the old city centre with its historical buildings were mentioned; emphasis was rather on the immaterial cultural heritage; songs, dances, legends, customs, popular traditions – not to forget the dreams for the future of the young ones.

The city is plagued with very heavy traffic and an unusually brutal “traffic culture”. The effect is that the elderly and disabled become more or less excluded from the public space.
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After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Georgia and its capital experienced a civil war for two weeks. Later on, mafia clans have from time to time engaged in armed fights with each other. In November 2019 there were for weeks on end demonstrations outside Parliament in favour of an amendment of the Election Law. The Swedish film And Then We Danced in which a young man seeks his sexual identity has caused strong reactions from the Orthodox church and other conservative groups.
Despite considerable improvements there is still a distrust of politics but a great engagement to keep the unique character of Tbilisi. This is however in conflict with former politicians and oligarchs who for example are trying to construct a private cable car line across the central parts of the city. Despite all this, Tbilisi is the stage for many interesting and exciting initiatives with cultural hubs in former industrial buildings. The city architecture is a fascinating encounter of styles and cultural influences, from neo classicism, to Byzantine, Art Noveau and Soviet modernism.

The river Mitkvari is the artery of Tbilisi. Along the riverside a highway was built during the Soviet time, closing off access to the river for the inhabitants. The riverbanks were coated in granite. The last public space by the river was occupied in the 2010’s by the new Palace of Justice. Now the Mitkvari should be re-invigorated for the purpose of tourist transport. Recreational areas could be created where still no granite foundations have been erected. A new park is in fact planned on a rivers island in the North. But, it was thought, there is a lack of collegiality between the city authorities, business and the citizens. A leading architect of the recently adopted general plan argued that the green areas “have been eaten”, that “nature has been expelled” and that “the nature must be called back”.

On cultural life and of communication between citizens and government, the old Melik Azariants house was quoted as an example of a multifunctional space, an example of “co-existence” between theatre, a photo school, pantomime, gallery etc. The example should be copied in other parts of the city. Also, public art projects should be encouraged in this contextSeveral speakers underlined the necessity to ask the citizens about their needs and wishes. An idea would be to establish a digital platform for the general public, the government and all stakeholders in city planning. We were informed that SKL – Sveriges Kommuner och Landsting – had been running a communications project with the Tbilisi city administration, but that the project had come to a standstill, with the ball currently in the city’s court. However, a key issue would be to see how the findings of the views of the public would relate to the plans and measures launched by the administration. A “consultation app” was suggested.

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A city tour took us to the yet unexploited riverbanks and islets, to parks and to the historical district. Three working groups were established on:

– Inclusive street design for a walkable city.
– Green corridors for access to the river.
– Participatory urban planning and tools for communication.

One working group focused on the traffic bottlenecks created by the extension of the city along the waterway, hemmed in as it is by mountains on both sides. The group suggested that then the river itself be used for transport, e.g. by water busses, by constructing cable car lines and a funicular. To these measures, bike lanes, green areas and special provisions for the elderly or disabled should be added.

Another group suggested the building of one or more cultural hubs with institutions and activities upstream where nature is less exploited, likewise the transformation of derelict former industrial areas into recreation zones. Anything from sports arenas to kitchen gardens could be accommodated within such zones.
All stressed the importance of finding out what the inhabitants want.

This was the first phase of a two-year project aiming to examine issues which will be further developed first with a study visit to Sweden in the spring of 2020 and then with continued work with key actors in Tbilisi in the autumn.